By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
Politics sometimes leads to poetic justice. Sarah Palin can no longer mock President Barack Obama's use of a teleprompter after her own teleprompter froze mid-speech.
The calamity occurred at Republican Rep. Steve King's Iowa Freedom Summit in Iowa last weekend, leaving her to ad-lib a word salad of red-meat applause lines for her conservative audience, such as this:
"The man can only ride you when your back is bent. So strengthen it! Then the man can't ride you, America won't get taken for a ride, because so much is at stake."
"Now the press asks, the press asks, 'Can anyone stop Hillary?' " she said of Democrat Hillary Clinton who is widely expected to run in 2016. "Again, this is to forego a conclusion, right? It's to scare us off, to convince us that -- a pantsuit can crush patriots."
With that, Palin inadvertently demonstrated a peculiarity of political rally speeches: What you say doesn't matter as long as your audience knows when it is time for them to clap.
Yet, as the political landscape shifts in President Obama's final two years in office and the presidential race heats up, I am encouraged to hear signs that a serious debate may yet manage to squeeze its way through the usual sound bites.
Remember how the president made "middle class economics" the theme of his State of the Union Address? I heard that as a new spin on an old theme from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign: the "forgotten middle class." They still feel forgotten.
That's why, even before Obama's speech, top Republicans signaled a new embrace of a theme that they usually have denounced as "class warfare" when it was brought up by Democrats: income inequality.
How did they pull off this switcheroo? Simple. They blamed the inequality on Obama.
So what if jobs and economic growth actually have improved enough for Obama's approval ratings to rise again -- and for him to claim credit that he was reluctant to express during last year's midterm campaigns? House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a "CBS 60 Minutes appearance, bemoaned how it was only the "1 percent" who were benefiting from the boom.
In a California forum, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas similarly scoffed, "I chuckle every time I hear Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton talk about income inequality, because it's increased dramatically under their policies."
Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida agreed at the same event. "This president should take no credit for any kind of recovery we have," said Paul to the conservative gathering.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also have lamented the widespread discomfort that persists beneath the budding economic optimism.
Whether you want to give Obama credit for the current recovery or not, you can rest assured that, had the economy gotten worse, he would be getting the blame. Instead, the Grand Old Party finds itself in the awkward position of telling the public to please perk down, every silver lining has its cloud.
The GOP's credibility challenge was illustrated by none other than the party's losing 2012 candidate, Mitt Romney. He complained to a Republican crowd in San Diego, "Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before."
But let's get this much straight: Income inequality has been growing since at least the early 1960s — and upward mobility has been shrinking. Structural changes in the nation's economy have hollowed out blue-collar manufacturing jobs, creating a new class divide between those who have some schooling beyond high school and those who don't.
Polls and the Republican Party's own "autopsy" after the 2012 loss explain why the party is still trying to push back against Romney's secretly recorded dismissal of "the 47 percent" who he didn't think were going to vote for him anyway.
This time, the GOP sounds eager to win those voters back. Good. Let the debate begin. If both parties seriously compete with some new ideas, the whole country benefits. But we're looking for ideas that have a chance of working, not just winning elections.
Reach Clarence Page at email@example.com.